Who is behind the ‘grassroots’ campaign against trial lawyer ads?

December 9, 2015

(Reuters) – Trial lawyers’ television ads are, as a genre, so over-the-top that you might think they’re parody proof. If you watch late-night TV you know what I’m talking about: “Toxic drug warning!” “Legal Alert!” “Attention: You may be entitled to compensation!” The ads aren’t artful, to say the least, but they are effective. If they weren’t, trial lawyers would not be spending nearly a billion dollars a year, according to a study the Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) released in October, to reach out to potential clients.

On Monday, a group called Sick of Lawsuits announced an ad campaign against plaintiffs lawyers’ ad campaigns. The group created a mock trial lawyer commercial with all of the typical tropes: the banging gavel, the green money signs, the flashing “Call us now!” alert. But the ad’s warning is not to believe what you hear from trial lawyers. As the group says on its website, “Everywhere they turn, consumers are surrounded by aggressive lawsuit advertising that uses sensationalist and misleading information to lure or scare people into lawsuits. It’s more than annoying. It’s dangerous when people start to believe that everything they see in these ads is true.”

Sick of Lawsuits is a collaboration between the remaining chapters of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, or CALA. The press release announcing the group’s campaign against trial lawyers’ ads called Sick of Lawsuits “a legal watchdog group of more than 200,000 people.” But Joanne Doroshow of the Center for Justice and Democracy, who co-authored an expose in 2000 on CALA’s corporate backers, said that number seems vastly exaggerated. The once robust CALA effort – funded in the 1990s by tobacco companies and other corporate targets of personal injury suits – has dwindled to a handful of chapters, she said. (The GuideStar database on nonprofits lists CALA groups only in Texas, California, Maryland and West Virginia.) “They have tiny budgets and basically, barely exist,” Doroshow said.

Jennifer Harris, a spokesperson for the Texas chapters, said she does not know nationwide membership statistics but her group has more than 5,000 people on its email list.

Harris said the goal of the Sick of Lawsuits campaign is to inform potential plaintiffs. “We were alarmed at the uptick in spending” documented in the ILR report, Harris told me. “We’re saying, ‘Don’t let a lawyer be your doctor. Look at who is funding these ads.'”

In that same spirit of informing the public, you should know that if you clicked Sick of Lawsuits’ “Donate now” tab on Tuesday morning, you would have wound up at a contributors’ page tied to the American Tort Reform Association. (As of Tuesday afternoon, the link between the sites seems to have been disabled.)

Jared Saylor, director of communication at the American Association for Justice, said Sick of Lawsuits’ connection to ATRA belies its grassroots claims. “This so-called grassroots campaign is a poor attempt by a corporate front group to trick the American people,” he said in an email statement. Doroshow said ATRA helped create what she calls the “Astroturf” CALA effort decades ago. The Sick of Lawsuits collaboration, she said, “probably reflects some desperation on ATRA’s part.”

ATRA spokesman Darren McKinney told me his group does provide funding to CALA chapters “when we are flush.” He said there are fewer state CALA groups now than in the past because the tort reform movement has achieved many of its goals. “Tort reform writ large has been fairly successful,” McKinney said. (Much remains to be done, he added, as ATRA’s annual “Judicial Hellholes” report will argue when it is released later this month.)

McKinney told me trial lawyer advertising frightens patients away from safe, effective drugs. He also said there’s essentially no regulation of such ads because state bar associations, which have the power to sanction lawyers whose advertisements violate ethics rules, don’t use that authority. “State bars? Are you kidding me? They have been captured by plaintiffs’ lawyers!” he said.

I said when the ILR study came out that I have no problem with plaintiffs’ firms advertising for clients. I stand by that sentiment, however distasteful some trial lawyer ads are. The U.S. Supreme Court said in the landmark 1972 decision on lawyer ads, Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, that without outreach to potential plaintiffs, “the not-quite-poor and the unknowledgeable” might not realize their right to sue.

The answer to bad information is more information. So bring on the Sick of Lawsuits campaign. Just remember who ultimately benefits from it.

(This post has been updated to correct a sentence fragment.)

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